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IIT Madras: A hotbed of innovations
S Kalyana Ramanathan in New Delhi | October 20, 2007
It is almost six in the evening when I rush in to meet Professor M Kumaravel in his office at IIT Madras. But the senior faculty member brushes all excuses of being held up by his colleagues aside, ready instead to talk about his work and his association with former President of India, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.
"I met him early this week along with some American scientists for a brainstorming session on how to place photovoltaic solar panels in space to capture energy from the sun to send back to a dish on earth."
It's the kind of grand plan either a genius or a madman would think up to solve the country's energy crisis, and it's a no-brainer which of those the good professor is.
Still, I joke that we perhaps ought to talk about his work on earth before taking a trip into space, to which he rapidly acquiesces. He shows me a working prototype of a reverse osmosis plant that draws power from solar panels without the aid of a battery.
"It's the first of its kind in the world," he says. Seawater in a 500-litre Syntex drum is made potable using this process.
Kumaravel next takes me to the fifth floor of his office where there is an entire section of the lab illuminated with white LED bulbs placed on silver foiled tubes.
Though these are under observation on test-beds, they are almost as good as the incandescent lights that glow in the rest of his office. It may not look it but these are connected to one of his dream projects of "building integrated photovoltaic" panels.
In layman's parlance, he explains that doors, windows, curtains and every other exposed part of a building can double up as photovoltaic panels to draw energy during the day from sunlight and take care of household energy needs.
A few minutes' walk takes us to another part of the fifth floor, to a few rundown bicycles and workout cycles, the kind you're more likely to see in a gym. Since the professor does not look the kind who hits the gym, I'm mystified.
"You cycle on one for a half-hour and you can get enough power for the next three hours," he explains. "We had sent 12 of these to the Andaman Islands. They landed there on 24 December, 2004," he says sadly.
As if acknowledging my incomprehension over the significance of the date, he explains "Tsunami". All the samples sent to the islands were destroyed by the great wave that hit the Indian Ocean and the project has since been on the backburner.
In spite of living in Chennai for over three-and-a-half decades, this is my first visit to the IIT Madras campus. The stories I had heard about the 632-acre campus so far had more to do with wildlife than any groundbreaking research here.
And any curiosity I might have had to visit had more to do with unconfirmed reports about the availability of, shall we say, stimulants among students than to study the result of their toils.
All this changed when Professor M S Ananth, director of IIT Madras, delivered a lecture at the ICE seminar Connect 2007 hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). It was not exactly in the same league as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, but for an IIT novice, it might well have been.
Ananth, who studied and taught chemical engineering for most part of his life, spoke about the new era in the industry/academia relationship.
In a reversal of the brain-drain that India had suffered for long until the early nineties, it seemed educated Indians now wanted to keep coming back. Not only were the alumni of IIT Madras returning, it seemed that many of those who were studying here were wanting to turn - sacrilege till a few years ago -entrepreneurs.
After two weeks of exchanging mails and phone calls, the director's office finally agreed to give me a guided tour of the campus and let me have access to some of the more interesting projects incubated here.
My 12-hour guided tour proved insufficient to form any meaningful opinion, though what came through clearly was that a lot of the work underway on campus has the capability to make meaningful changes to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people outside.
What was more reassuring was the culture that is fostered here, some of it rather obviously reflected in signage that explains the existence quite simply of "Socially Relevant Projects" or "Rural Technology Action Group" (RuTAG).
Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, dean-planning, also part of the TeNet group, talks about achieving great things in a very short time.
"The idea is to find out how technology can play a role in improving rural GDP. Migration from rural to urban areas in a country like India could be a major problem 10 years from now," he says.
TeNet's mission is to improve rural per capita income from the present level of Rs 3,500 (Ramamurthi's estimates) to Rs 7,000 in the next 10 years. One product of this mission is the setting up of a rural business process outsourcing company called DesiCrew Solutions, run by a woman entrepreneur, Saloni Malhotra.
This small BPO, which currently has 50 seats, provides a handful of services like publishing, digitisation of government records, employee benefits outsourcing and directory building services. The operating software to run this business is a product of the TeNet group within IIT Madras.
Another working model of the TeNet Group is a "rural ATM" machine that can handle soiled notes and costs as little as Rs 1 lakh apiece or just about one-eighth the cost of a conventional ATM.
"Did you know that rural people don't accept mint-fresh notes in this part of the world?" Prof Ramamurthi asks. He doesn't wait for my answer - it's true, though, that I had no idea of their suspicion of new, possibly fake currency.
This innovative cash vending machine is a product of a company called Vortex, developed in association with IIT Madras with support from ICICI Bank [Get Quote]. Not just the capital cost, even the operating cost for these machines are ensured at bare minimum levels.
Given the low frequency in the usage of these machines in villages, the machines are manned by bank staff from a remote location.
For filling cash in these machines, the doors are opened remotely through commands sent over the Internet. These ATMs dispense cash over limited hours during the day, so saving on the cost of security.
Research within IIT Madras, unlike in any corporation, is spread across the entire organisation and is not limited just to a few pockets of excellence.
Departments like Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research (ICSR) work closely with industrial houses for a fee to deliver research output that can be commercialised by the latter. This happens under three groups - research-based industrial consulting, institutional research, and retainer research.
On average, IIT Madras's total revenue from these funded activities is estimated at Rs 15-17 crore (Rs 150 to 170 million) annually. Based on the nature of research, the faculty involved gets a share as a percentage of the income. On average, 60 per cent of net income from such work goes to the faculty and the balance is retained by the institution.
Low cost, lower cost and lowest cost is the very essence of innovation that researchers work on day in and day out. While IIT Madras acts as a catalyst via its research and laboratories, it stays away from the business of selling these innovations as branded products.
Most projects, and particularly those undertaken by RuTAG or the Lemelson Recognition & Mentoring Programme (L-RAMP), is undertaken in cooperation with an innovator and a via-media, usually an NGO. Unlike ICSR, research here is usually honorary, meaning neither the faculty nor the institution make any money from it. A nominal 10 per cent of the cost of the project is taken by IIT towards administrative cost.
Among its more recent successes are low-cost but clinically safe sanitary napkins made out of wood pulp, herbally treated baby diapers, an improved raingun (sprinkler) used in sugarcane farms that saves water and sprinkles water more efficiently, stronger artificial feet (Jaipur limbs), mud-blocks for low cost housing, even banana fibre extraction machines developed in cooperation with the PSG College of Technology.
Focusing on grassroots level innovations is the cornerstone for special projects like L-RAMP.
"The projects we support must adhere to certain conditions. One, the benefit must go to the disadvantaged; two, it must be truly innovative; finally, it must be commercially viable," says Professor R Nagarajan, principal coordinator at L-RAMP.
Most products coming out of RuTAG and L-RAMP are still in nascent stages as far as marketability is concerned. But to cite a case to understand their competitive cost - the wood pulp-based sanitary napkin (branded Relax) is available at Rs 2.30 a piece while commercially available products from famous brands cost Rs 5 and upwards.
With innovations and discoveries on the rise in IIT Madras, the awareness of patentability is also improving. Professor T T Narendran in the department of management studies, whose office helps in the patenting processes, says on average four patents are filed every month.
"Except for math, humanities and management, most departments have patentable innovations developed consistently. Of course, electronics and communications are the most prominent group," he says.
A committee of three members checks out all patentable cases. Based on the branch of engineering, three more faculty members are called on board to sit on judgement over whether a particular work is worthy of patenting or not.
"It takes two-three years to actually get a patent number. Very rarely are patent applications turned down by the patent office," says an officer attached to the ICSR. IIT Madras has retained two law firms to do the paperwork for its patent applications.
Several innovations like the wireless local loop (WLL) technology developed by the TeNET group are operational communication technologies that have reached the masses, mainly in rural and semi-urban areas where conventional technologies are commercially unviable.
Remote diagnostics like ReMeDi allow doctors sitting in district headquarters to take healthcare delivery mechanisms where even mobile hospitals cannot reach.
At the simple tap of a mouse, doctors can see live ECG graphs on their computer screens and hear the heat beat. This kit even allows health workers to measure blood pressure remotely - all of it over regular Internet channels without any broadband.
There is even a video conference system on display that works well on low-band width, as low as 16Kbps, while conventional systems expect downlink speeds in the range of 640Kbps to 1.6Mbps.
The cost of research is an attractive feature that draws innovators and entrepreneurs towards IIT. Though no reliable comparative data is available on the economy of doing research in IIT Madras, insiders would like to believe it is half or less for conducting similar research in a private lab outside the campus.
On the question of the quality of research and how it compares with its Western counterparts, B Subramanian, professor of German studies, is scathing: "The industry and universities in the West have a long history of evolution. You cannot expect this here in a short span of time. We have very good professors and researchers but inadequate support staff in the form of research assistants to facilitate the emergence of distinct research groups doing sustained research."
Yet, there appears to be serious research happening in different branches of engineering, even if they do seem to be working in isolation.
What is less obvious is the fundamental philosophy and the motivation that is shared by these researchers and innovators. Listen carefully, as I did, and you might hear almost inaudible voices murmuring that necessity is the mother of all innovation.
Innovative products from IITs
IIT Madras is not the only institution doing research, whether by way of technology incubation or sponsored industrial research. Several interesting products have been the result at the other IITs in the country.
Low cost computer controlled irrigation system
Economical road design using improved bituminous mix design and structural design of the pavement to achieve better economy in material cost without compromising with its reliability
Source: Institutes' websites